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An Exercise in Unconventionality : Ex-Charger Coach Svare Is Pitchman for a Fitness Program Called ‘THE Egoscue Method’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At age 31 he became the youngest head coach in the National Football League, and after his command stint with the Rams, Harland Svare began his innovative but torturous journey with the Chargers.

The “Sack Svare” stickers are long gone now, but the man who persists in being ahead of his time is at it again.

Svare has become the pitchman for “THE (Therapy, Health, Education) Egoscue Method,” a break-from-traditional exercise program that allowed Jack Nicklaus to swing a golf club again without back pain and a conditioning plan currently being embraced by some of the Chargers to enhance their performances.

It is controversial--several of the Chargers refused to have their photographs taken while performing the Egoscue exercises for fear of upsetting their team’s training staff--but then controversy remains Svare’s calling card.

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His hiring of a psychiatrist, Dr. Arnold Mandell, to work with the Chargers in 1973 resulted in a drug scandal and ultimately Svare’s dismissal.

“One of my strengths is I get ahead of things,” Svare said. “I wanted to know why a team is up one week and down the next. It started off that harmlessly and then led to information about players getting amphetamines from across the border.

“At the time I saw hard drugs coming and that was what I was worried about. I wasn’t worried about amphetamines. I was worried about the introduction of narcotics. . . . Looking back, it hasn’t been cleared up. I don’t think there’s any question about that. You’d like to think every team in this league just has an amphetamine problem. But just look at the steroid problem.”

In the early ‘70s when Svare juggled duties as Chargers’ general manager and head coach, the team performed poorly. When the Chargers’ use of amphetamines became public, Svare was fined by the league and became the target of disgruntled fans. The awnings that shield the players and coaches from fans as they leave the field today were constructed to protect Svare.

Svare resigned as coach in 1973 with six games to play. A few years later Mandell wrote a book chronicling his troubled time with Svare and the Chargers. Its title: “The Nightmare Season.”

“The whole thing was completely blown out of proportion, but it ended my career in football,” Svare said. “It got completely out of hand. Maybe it’s what happened to the Salem witches--whether it’s fair or unfair, it just happens and you become a victim. It hurt at the time, but I wouldn’t be here if I had stayed at the end of the bar stool back in 1973 saying, ‘I got screwed.’ You got to stop it; you can’t take it with you.

“I guess I tend to get on the leading edge of things. But if I hadn’t had that same mentality that had me bring Mandell in here, I probably wouldn’t have been as open to THE Egoscue Method.”

THE Egoscue Method.

It’s different. It’s common sense in theory, but somewhat more complicated to explain. It makes a backache go away. It is also classic American ingenuity, although there are no medical diplomas on the wall to validate its effectiveness.

“Our rejection rate at the beginning was close to 100%,” Svare said. “Human nature resists something new--especially when it comes from somebody who has no credentials. It’s like, ‘Who are you?’ ”

A who’s who of satisfied customers, however, now has assembled to endorse THE Egoscue Method, including Charger linebacker Billy Ray Smith, Bear Coach Mike Ditka, President Gerald Ford, singer Patti Page, Seahawk quarterback Dan McGuire, golfer and commentator Johnny Miller, golfer Greg Norman, the USA men’s volleyball team and the Torrey Pines High School boys basketball team.

“Two years ago when we started in this program, we had two kids who could dunk at the beginning of the year and had nine at the end,” said John Farrell, Torrey Pines’ basketball coach. “We were committed to the program and we saw a lot of good results. I think there’s a lot to what they have to say. The kids stayed healthy and we won.

“We had one kid, Peter Bates, who was 6-5 when we first started this, and by just straightening out his back he became 6-7. That’s how slouched he was. Let me tell you, he’s getting a full scholarship to SMU, and he wouldn’t have gotten it as a 6-5 forward. That’s worth $75,000 to his family.”

Svare’s assignment now is to spread the wealth with the introduction of Peter Egoscue and his revolutionary approach to physical therapy.

“I’m on a mission to get this out to everybody,” Svare said. “Rejection has been very heavy, but what it does is stir up the linebacker in me and make me more determined than ever.”

The obstacle for Svare: Egoscue has no medical background, and therefore for some, no credibility.

“We humans have decided we’re fragile and we’ve decided we’re very complicated,” Egoscue said. “Since we’re so fragile and so complex, if you’re not a health care professional then supposedly you have the inability to trust your instincts, can’t use your intelligence and your experience is out as it relates to what is going on to your body.”

Svare had his doubts in the beginning, too, but then he watched Egoscue erase the stubborn pain in his wife’s back. Try me next, said Svare.

“I had six leg operations since 1981 and went through the traditional therapy and my leg never got any better,” Svare said. “Fundamentally, I was crippled; I couldn’t move up or down stairs. I just wasn’t getting any better and I’m sure I was looking at an artificial knee down the road.

“I saw Pete about my leg and after the first day I felt an immediate reaction. I was heading on three or four years of no reaction, and here my leg was suddenly getting better day by day. Next thing I know I started jogging. Seven years later I’m running almost five times a week and my leg doesn’t bother me in the slightest.”

After becoming enamored with Egoscue’s work, Svare became his partner. Together they opened the “THE Clinic” in Del Mar, and now four years later they have expanded with a second office in Palm Beach, Fla.

“We started seeing four people a week,” Svare said. “Now we see around 30 people a day.”

Egoscue and Svare have found great success with professional golfers. The PGA agreed to fund an Egoscue study on the feasibility of creating a nationwide program to help school-age children improve their fitness.

Once the top golfers took note, the testimonials began to pile up:

Michael J. Reidy, president of Nexus Corporation: “To me, THE Egoscue Method is a miracle.”

NBC-TV’s Charlie Jones: “THE Egoscue Method has completely realigned my back and all the pain and discomfort are gone.”

Professional golfer Gene Littler: “For 15 years I had trouble with my back and hurt with just about every swing I took on the regular PGA Golf Tour. I saw orthopedic doctors, chiropractors and had countless physical therapy treatments. I was also put on drugs for about 10 years. None of this helped and I did not experience any relief until I was introduced to THE Egoscue Method. It has saved my life.”

So who is this life saver? Just what is THE Egoscue Method? And why try it?

Who?

Peter Egoscue looks like a bouncer at a local nightspot, but comes on like a drill sergeant. He has a degree in political science from Utah State and the energy of a politician running for office. He is brimming with self-confidence, and so you will see this August when he joins the talk-show circuit to tout his upcoming book, “THE Egoscue Method of Health Through Motion.”

“Pete was an officer in the Marine Corps and got shot in Vietnam,” Svare said. “He got hit in the left buttock and it pretty much tore up his hamstring. When he got out of rehab, he didn’t like the way he had recuperated.

“He picked up a Gray’s Anatomy book and started to go through it and from there came a rare talent. I have never met anybody who knows more about how the body works than Pete.”

A self-taught Egoscue began assisting his Marine comrades, and like Svare would discover years later, they found themselves improving at a rapid pace.

“It was my hobby and I had all these clients and it was free for all my friends,” Egoscue said. “Everybody was getting better and I was a genius. I started to do some arithmetic and figured if I charged them this much, I’d be just fine. I resigned as a major from the Marines (in 1978), hung out my little shingle and pretty much starved.

“A week earlier I had been a hero with my clients, but when it became my business they wanted to know where my credentials were.”

After leaving the Marines and getting the cold shoulder from his former associates, Egoscue picked up a telephone book and spent his days making cold calls in San Diego in search of prospective customers.

The days became longer and more frustrating. “I’d go for a long run or a swim to get away from the rejection,” Egoscue said. “One day I’m swimming and this little old lady by the name of Ava Audra comes limping out. She was in great pain and I gave her a couple of things to do in the water and told her to not let anyone replace her hip. I told her to hang in there.

“I was just trying to help while never giving it a thought that this is what I was trying to do for a living. Dummy me. But she came back and asked if I would continue to help her. Well, that was my first customer.”

The sporting world came to know the determined ex-Marine in 1989 after Nicklaus announced that Egoscue’s exercises had saved his golfing career.

“Nicklaus was our big catalyst,” Svare said. “He was a tremendous boost for our credibility.”

What?

“We call ourselves anatomical functionalists,” Svare said. “It’s almost anatomical engineering. What we do is bring individuals to full anatomical function.”

THE Egoscue Method requires no equipment, drugs or manipulation.

The method is based on a thorough understanding of both cardiovascular and musculo-skeletal functions. It’s a series of result-oriented programs that identify anatomical dysfunctions and limitations, and restores and maintains the body’s full range of motion.

That’s what the THE Clinic’s brochure says.

“The body,” said Egoscue, “is a right-angle load-bearing machine.”

Stand up. They want to look at your machine.

“Just by looking at you,” Svare said, “your right leg is out a lot further than your left and you will have right leg problems. You are vulnerable to lower back problems and if you were an athlete you’d probably have a helluva time going to your left. That means that this hip has gotten real tight, and if you’re going to hurt a shoulder it will be your right shoulder.”

An accident waiting to happen.

“Exactly,” Svare said. “We called Bo Jackson’s (hip) injury. His left leg is way out here and you can see it. His leg is out of position and that’s why the injury was so severe. He was ripe for injury.

“Ask anybody who has tracked Bo Jackson’s career and you would find very clearly that he ran better to his left than to his right. He would seek the left because of his body. Eric Dickerson has got the opposite leg problem. He seeks the right all the time.”

Each subject at the THE Clinic is photographed and examined, and the information is fed to a computer that produces a skeletal image and a prescribed exercise routine. The stick figure that emerges from the computer is not very flattering.

“Isn’t the body amazing that it can do what it’s doing with all that dysfunction?” Egoscue said.

The charge for the 2- to 3-hour evaluation process is $200. Subsequent visits are $100.

“The theory is based on the fact that the body is built to move on this planet with the force of gravity,” Svare said. “It does so with the bones and muscles and works best when the load-bearing properties of the body, which are the joints and bones, are at right angles to the axis of gravity. That’s the genius of it.”

An interpreter, please.

“The best athletes in the world and you have the same design,” Svare said. “This body design is also meant to be on the move and on the run all day long. It’s done for survival. The body that didn’t move in our ancestors’ time didn’t eat well and didn’t survive. It is our belief that the industrial age has taken this need to move out of our culture.

“We feel inner-city kids have an advantage on affluent kids. They’re running the streets instead of being driven everywhere and this motion helps minorities in sports. It’s an environmental advantage, maybe the only advantage of being poor, but an advantage of being a little sounder physically.

“You take (Charger linebacker) Junior Seau, and he is one of the more functional athletes we have ever seen. He doesn’t have a bunch of problems. He was probably active as a kid; he probably didn’t get in cars very much.”

There are no fancy machines in THE Clinic’s workroom. Egoscue will have you on the floor doing exercises. He will have you on the road running. He may have you using light weights, while also offering a diet tailored to your needs.

“Ninety-three percent of our clients get well,” Egoscue said. “They do it in a hurry. Patients average 6.4 office visits. We don’t want you coming here; we want you well. The way we build business is through satisfied customers and their referrals.”

Svare is presently conducting a 28-day camp designed to run the sneakers off eager athletes. The camp places an emphasis on running and jumping, and in addition to high school and college athletes, it has attracted several of the Chargers, who will be leaving July 15 for training camp at UCSD.

“On an individual basis we go after the dysfunction and make those muscles functional,” Svare said. “What we do here is put a demand function on dysfunctional muscles. It takes a couple of months to correct the problem, but it’s the patient who corrects it. It’s the patient who does the exercises.”

Why?

THE Egoscue Method has been designed to assist people in the recovery from injury, prevent injury and to enhance performance.

“There’s no substitute for talent,” Egoscue said. “We never take credit for some athlete’s talent. We get the problems out of the way so talent can exhibit itself.”

The Torrey Pines boys basketball team used Egoscue’s exercises before each practice and before each game. The team went through the entire 1991-1992 season without suffering an injury. It also collected a CIF title.

“We had one player who had never completed a full season before this year, but he did this season,” Farrell said. “This program makes for better athletes because you get better range of motion. It works. If you looked at us in the fourth quarter, we were the freshest team.

“The whole thing is amazing. I mean we’ve had Harland watch the opposition before a game and he can tell us which way we can drive because they can’t cover us moving their feet the way they are. It sounds silly, but that could be a big factor having that kind of knowledge in a tie game.

“We’re trying to get it into all of our physical education classes. All of our kids are going to be citizens, and if you can teach them how to be healthy, it helps everybody.”

Several of the Chargers, including Smith and Gill Byrd, have bought into Egoscue’s philosophy. But the players are quick to point out that they are using Egoscue’s exercises as a supplement to the team’s training, strength and conditioning programs.

“I was working with Pete back when he was coming to your house,” Smith said. “In 1986 I missed a couple of games with a bad ankle. I was having some real problems. I was taping to the skin and then over the shoe both.

“In ’87, after working with Pete, I was playing some games without any tape. You take what he’s doing and combine it with what our trainers are doing and you are way ahead of everybody. I figure the more sources you have coming into the mix, you’re going to strike on something that does you good.”

Egoscue and Svare have informed professional teams around the country of their services, but they have no intention of competing with training rooms. “I don’t want their job,” Egoscue said. “It isn’t a philosophical difference as much as it is a procedural perception. Everybody wants their players to be stronger. A strength coach’s perception of improvement is if you lift this much weight you are this much stronger.

“We come at it from a different perspective. We say strength is your body’s ability to do what it was designed to do. How much weight you lift isn’t the question. It’s what you use to lift that weight. The human body can do anything that man can devise for it in the training room or weight room. You are capable since you are a 30,000-year-old designed machine of doing anything.”

To enhance performance, THE Egoscue Method works to make the muscles on each side of the body functional. If a player can go to his right, why not his left just as well?

“We’re a bilateral machine,” Egoscue said. “This side of the body is supposed to do the same as this side. THE Egoscue Method reminds the muscles on both sides of the body what they do for a living. The result is that pain goes away, full range of motion returns and the individual can attain full anatomical function.”

The THE Clinic is doing a booming business, but Svare, the pioneer, remains unsatisfied. He’s looking ahead. He sees a day when youngsters will be exposed to THE Egoscue Method before they learn to walk.

There is so much to do. He has been in contact with Bo Jackson’s representative. He has tried to reach Larry Bird to offer help with his bad back. He watches Joe Montana on TV, notices that his shoulders are rotated forward, and understands why Montana is susceptible to elbow problems.

“There’s no question in my mind what we’re onto is the way physical therapy is going to be done in the future,” Svare said. “I think it’s a very important discovery. It’s pure common sense and the results are phenomenal.

“If I was coaching now, we’d be using half of our two-a-days doing this. I’d go that far.”

But then, he always has.


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